Ayn Rand believed that the path to social harmony ran through the inferior masses’ acceptance of brutal rule by their natural superiors. Her perspective was wrong, and its implications were just as grim and nasty as her atrocious personality.

Ayn Rand in New York City, 1957. (New York Times Co. / Getty Images)

Those of us familiar with Ayn Rand’s ardent pro-capitalism and renowned meanspiritedness may be disinclined to immerse ourselves in her writing. Nonetheless, we can’t deny her significance. Rand’s work and personality have come to define the politics and economics, and even more so the mood, of the world we live in today.

The thought of losing precious hours in the nightmarescape of Rand’s literary oeuvre is unappealing, but understanding her worldview and legacy is imperative. Fortunately, Lisa Duggan has written a smart, engaging, and mercifully short book, Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed, distilling all we need to know about Ayn Rand.

Duggan spoke to Daniel Denvir, host of the Jacobin Radio podcast the Dig. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. Duggan is a historian, journalist, and activist who teaches at New York University. She’s the author of several other books, including Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy and Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture.

Daniel Denvir

You write that what ties all of Ayn Rand together, and what ties Rand to the core of today’s political economy, is a mood. This goes some way to explaining why Rand’s ideas are so popular, because it’s not really about her ideas. You write, “The unifying threads are meanness and greed, and the spirit of the whole hodgepodge is Ayn Rand.” What is the affective register Rand is writing in?

Lisa Duggan

I’ll start by saying that in my field, American Studies, when people write about empire and colonialism, they include discussions about desire, fantasy, libido, as well as race, gender, sexuality, and intimacy. So if you read about empire or colonialism, you’ll find that it’s not just treated as a rational system based solely on institutions. It’s also about fantasy and desire. However, most people who write about neoliberalism are social scientists who overlook fantasy, desire, and libido. But it seems to me that neoliberalism is actually full of these elements. That’s one of the ways people are recruited to support brutal neoliberal policies — through their feelings and fantasies.

That’s one of the ways people are recruited to support brutal neoliberal policies — through their feelings and fantasies.

Most people start out reading Ayn Rand’s two most famous novels, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, in high school. The novels are a kind of conversion machine. Many people who go on to a wide range of right-wing and pro-capitalist politics start out by being fans of Ayn Rand, and then they encounter Milton Friedman or the International Monetary Fund or the Cato Institute or the Koch brothers. But they’re set up through Ayn Rand’s fantasies of heroic, sexy, entrepreneurial supremacy. She’s a gateway drug. Her work is filled with a sense of aspiration to superiority, a sense of “me against the world” that appeals to adolescents a lot. So it’s a big machine for converting adolescents to a set of feelings and fantasies that then fold into conservative, right-wing, and pro-capitalist politics.

Ayn Rand was originally from Russia, and her primary formation was rooted in her opposition to the Bolsheviks. After becoming an expat and coming to the United States, her core belief was against solidarity. She used the term “collectivism,” but what she truly opposed was unity among less successful and dependent individuals. Ayn Rand believed that when inferior people come together, they negatively impact the world.

This outlook led to feelings of contempt, derision, and a sense of superiority, which shaped her early years. These sentiments carried on throughout the entire twentieth century, leading her to oppose the New Deal due to its perceived compassion issue. She also became anti-communist. Her opposition was not just practical, but strongly felt. Because solidarity is not just an alliance, it’s a feeling. It’s a way of connecting with others and their struggles. It’s not merely a shared set of interests; it’s also an emotional experience. For example, when you witness a teachers’ strike and you are moved to tears, the emotion you feel in that moment is solidarity. This is the feeling she opposed.

Daniel Denvir

What makes Ayn Rand an icon of neoliberalism, even though she herself was not a neoliberal?

Lisa Duggan

Her formation is too early for her to be a neoliberal, but she becomes an icon of neoliberalism. As it was formed in Western welfare states, the affect of neoliberalism was a kind of rejection of the New Deal — and not just the policies of the New Deal, but the affective underpinnings of the New Deal. Sympathy with others, solidarity with the poor and with working people across color lines.

She produced an affective of rejection of the New Deal that came to sit at the heart of neoliberalism. We don’t care about children in cages. We don’t care about losers and moochers. We don’t care about the feeling center at the heart of the policies. She is one of the primary suppliers of that, such that she becomes a reference point across the conservative political spectrum. All different kinds of conservatives and right-wingers reference her as an influence, even when they haven’t actually read her.

Daniel Denvir

You take Lauren Berlant’s concept of “cruel optimism,” which refers to the feelings necessary to keep hustling against the odds, and you flip it on its head to illuminate Rand’s register of “optimistic cruelty.” Explain these two concepts and their relation to each other in American life today.

Lisa Duggan

Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism explores the challenging reality of staying motivated and striving for a better life despite facing numerous losses and hardships resulting from the erosion of the social safety net, the disappearance of decent jobs, and other consequences of neoliberal policies. People endure these difficulties by holding onto some version of the good life, even when they can see it slipping away.

They continue to pursue higher education or job opportunities, even when prospects are bleak. They take on precarious jobs, believing that eventually they will achieve security and improvement. Berlant skillfully examines the emotional traces that sustain individuals in the face of overwhelming odds and evidence to the contrary. To Berlant, cruel optimism is the belief of a better future despite the absence of actual flourishing. She views this optimism as cruel to those who embrace it. This is a consequence of policy.

Berlant is discussing the 99 percent, addressing ordinary people and how they persevere. I wanted to delve into how people begin to identify with the 1 percent, even if they do not belong to that category. I wanted to explore how these identifications form, causing individuals’ aspirations to align, for example, with Donald Trump, even when their own lives do not. Therefore I introduced the term “optimistic cruelty,” and specifically applied it to Ayn Rand’s ideas. These ideas fuel the rise of capitalism in the United States. These forms of cruelty, hierarchies, and brutalities are believed to ultimately lead to the best life for everyone.

The premise of Atlas Shrugged is that when the New Deal erodes that kind of raw capitalism, the world disintegrates and collapses.

Optimistic cruelty is the idea that entrepreneurs will make jobs; and even though people won’t make very much money, they don’t really deserve and can’t really appreciate more than that; and that we’ll get the best world possible if we have brutal, raw, competitive, unregulated capitalism. The premise of Atlas Shrugged is that when the New Deal erodes that kind of raw capitalism, the world disintegrates and collapses, and the entrepreneurs have to escape to their little utopian — or what we would see as dystopian — “Gulch” in order to escape the world that’s collapsing in the face of the erosion of capitalism.

So that’s optimistic cruelty. I would use the term “optimistic cruelty” to talk about the twentieth-century layering in of Ayn Rand’s feelings as they applied to the rise and triumph of a certain kind of capitalism. But at this point I’m not sure I would call it optimistic anymore. It’s a much grimmer and darker vision that advocates of Ayn Rand have today, whether they’re in the Trump administration or in Silicon Valley. They are no longer investing in a vision of ultimate good and triumph, but rather openly taking everything while it burns to the ground.

Daniel Denvir

You write that Rand’s work “creates a moral economy of inequality to infuse her softly pornographic romance fiction with the political eros that would captivate a mass readership.” You also write, “The Fountainhead offered simultaneously eroticized and moralized character studies embedded in a heroic romance plot for the purpose of generating desire for capitalism.” And, you write, “Ayn Rand made acquisitive capitalists sexy. She launched thousands of teenage libidos into the world of reactionary politics on a wave of quivering excitement.”

How does Rand’s work use the erotic structure of her characters’ interpersonal relationships as a vehicle for the eroticization of capitalism?

Lisa Duggan

That’s really key to the influence she has, because the erotic force of her novels works as the conversion machine. She began as a child in St Petersburg, reading imperial children’s fiction. She identified with, say, British captains in India, who demonstrated their superiority over the Hindu masses, among other things. She had a kind of erotic thrill about these characters as a child, and she wrote about them in her journals and so forth. These were very Aryan characters who were physically “perfect,” who were dominant over the lower orders, who were contemptuous — and to her, that was sexiness. Her fantasy was of their superiority.

So when she wrote her masculine characters, she eroticized these qualities. She does not invent these ideas; rather, she taps into deep threads of civilizational discourse. So people read and they recognize the way that a kind of civilizational domination has been eroticized as part of the project of empire. She incorporates this discourse into her stories, creating romance plots with characters who embody this eroticized civilizational discourse. There’s always a little soft BDSM going on.

The female characters are also eroticized in a parallel way. She’s kind of an Ann Coulter feminist. She believes in gender equality as long as there’s a strong gender binary, where women are glamorous and men are manly. And women can be equal to men in all aspects — in Atlas Shrugged, the female hero runs a railroad — except sex, where the women are all femme power bottoms. Their power in the world is derived from their glamorous and sexy femininity, which is tied to their whiteness, slenderness, their Aryan blonde looks. The only area where they prove their femininity is through submission to a male hero.

The erotic force of her novels works as the conversion machine.

Teenagers read this work and they often find points of sexiness where they identify aspirationally with the heroic characters. Like, “I will be the exceptional creative figure who breaks out from the mediocre, and there’s a set of identifications that attach, and that will make me sexy.” You can see that in the way that, say, Silicon Valley tech moguls who maybe were nerds in high school invent themselves into Ayn Rand heroes. Donald Trump thinks he’s an Ayn Rand hero. He imagines himself to be Howard Roark. In fact, he’s an Ayn Rand villain. He’s a crony capitalist. He doesn’t have the type of body that Ayn Rand would have found powerful and sexy, and she would’ve made hideous fun of him. But he eroticizes his own being in the world as an Ayn Rand hero.

Daniel Denvir

Given that Rand believed herself to be the smartest person who ever lived, why was it so difficult for her to portray a female hero who ultimately dominates men?

Lisa Duggan

Because that would have contradicted her fundamental commitment to a binary gender structure. In her work and novels, femininity itself is defined by submission, though she tries to somewhat mitigate this by suggesting that submission only exists in the bedroom and not in other areas of life.

In her personal life, things were different. She essentially cast her husband based on her own Aryan hero ideal: tall, handsome, blonde, and slender. But he was a wallflower. Well, he was a florist. He loved peacocks. He dressed beautifully. He was very passive. He did everything she told him to. He sat around and looked glamorous. He was basically almost her butler. And then he died of alcoholism. But she always introduced him as her hero — This is my masculine Ayn Rand hero. He looked like one, but he had none of the other characteristics that she ascribed.

Her life and work are full of incredible contradictions. So here she is, the ultimate rationalist who had a complete mental breakdown when she found out her boyfriend was cheating on her. She’s the ultimate individualist who is the head of a cult where everyone has to follow and believe everything that she says. So her life and even her work itself is just rife with contradiction.

Daniel Denvir

Also, she was a Benzedrine addict.

Lisa Duggan

Yes. That’s how she wrote Atlas Shrugged. It took her thirteen years. She did it mostly on Benzedrine. And after she went off Benzedrine when she finished Atlas Shrugged, she fell into a major, major depression that she pretty much never really recovered from.

Daniel Denvir

Was she a prisoner of her own cruel optimism?

Lisa Duggan

I really resist diagnosing her because when we diagnose someone, we sometimes remove them from the cultural context and say, “This person is an exceptional person because they have a diagnosis,” and so they’re not representative of their culture. She is so deeply embedded in our cultural context and drawing so deeply from the discourses and narratives that are at the core of the culture that we live in that I don’t want to single her out by diagnosing her.

But when we start talking about her as an individual, it’s a little hard to completely evade the fact that she had the characteristics of a malignant narcissist. She undermined herself with narcissistic rage every time things did not go exactly as she wanted them to go. And people didn’t respond exactly as she wanted them to respond. So she melted down.

Daniel Denvir

That also sounds familiar.

Lisa Duggan

Yeah. It is very Trumpian.

Her vision for herself began in this optimistic arc where she thought she was a genius, and she believed she’d go to Hollywood and she’d really make it there. But in fact, she didn’t understand Hollywood or how Hollywood worked. So she got driven out of Hollywood. She went to Washington. She tried to be part of the anti-communist program there in the McCarthy era. She so misunderstood the message that they didn’t even invite her back for a second day of testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. She went to New York, and she was rude and demanding and alienated everyone. And by the end of her life, she was depressed and alone. She died of lung cancer. She had been a smoker all her life who always denied that smoking had any connection with lung cancer. And she asserted that unto her death of lung cancer, pretty much alone.

She started out optimistic about the future of herself and of capitalism. By the time she died, which was in 1982 — so right at the beginning of the real state project of neoliberalism — she was grim and depressed and no longer optimistic about anything. She was in constant rage at the time of her death. And you can see a parallel between her personal arc and the twentieth-to-twenty-first-century arc of neoliberalism as well.

Daniel Denvir

Rand’s first English language novel, which was never completed, depicted a hero based on a Los Angeles multiple murderer named William Hickman, who, among other things, kidnapped, murdered, and dismembered a twelve-year-old girl in the most horrifically gruesome way imaginable. Rand was impressed by Hickman’s demeanor.

Lisa Duggan

She had a crush on him.

Daniel Denvir

Hickman summed up his own personality in his defense as “I am like the state. What is good for me is right.”

Lisa Duggan

He said that at his trial. Yes.

Daniel Denvir

Gore Vidal wrote in 1961, “Ayn Rand’s ‘philosophy’ is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society. Moral values are in flux. The muddy depths are being stirred by new monsters and witches from the deep. Trolls walk the American night. Caesars are stirring in the Forum. There are storm warnings ahead.”

Lisa Duggan

That’s prescient, isn’t it?

Daniel Denvir

Was Rand distinctive among right-wing ideologues in her explicit anti-morality? Or, as you suggested, was she just prescient?

Lisa Duggan

Well, she did something that was not unusual, but she did it to extremes. With regards to religious morality, she argued that altruism and compassion were immoral because they encouraged the weak and incompetent to have more power and resources, and then they would mess it up for all of us. She believed that being selfish and greedy was moral, like the slogan “Greed is good” from the film Wall Street. While she was not the only one saying this, she was part of a more extreme group of right-wingers during the early twentieth century. They were sidelined until neoliberalism gained popularity, which further elevated her influence.

Another thing she did is she reversed the terms of conventional religious morality and appropriated and reworked some of the assumptions, logics, concepts, and slogans of the Left — like the producers producing all value. The first title of Atlas Shrugged was actually The Strike, because it was a capital strike.

Daniel Denvir

This is a good moment to pause and explain her philosophy of Objectivism, or at least attempt to. She succinctly explained it as follows: 1) metaphysics: objective reality, 2) epistemology: reason, 3) ethics: self-interest, 4) politics: capitalism. What does that mean? And what is she drawing on? Because there is no evidence that she read deeply or widely.

Lisa Duggan

Oh, she had a superficial approach to reading. She joined a reading group organized by Isabelle Paterson, another right-wing writer and journalist, and through that she read some secondary right-wing literature, but she never really delved deep into most of these texts. She didn’t have a clear understanding of capitalism, despite being portrayed as its most important advocate. It’s worth noting that when she was in Hollywood, her main criticism of Cecil B. DeMille was that he prioritized pursuing box office success, which is quite remarkable considering what capitalism actually involves.

The Fountainhead revolves around an architect who stays true to his own vision while facing obstacles from other mediocre architects, pandering newspapers, collectivist bureaucrats, and profit-driven businessmen. The protagonist is portrayed as the hero in this story. This is how she saw herself in Hollywood — the creative intellectual hindered by studio executives and directors and the business of Hollywood, the box office chasing, which prevented her from being the star writer she was supposed to be.

She didn’t have a clear understanding of capitalism, despite being portrayed as its most important advocate.

That’s another example of her misunderstanding. Capitalism is a collectivist and corporate enterprise. It’s a class project. She really didn’t understand that. She failed to grasp that capitalism is inherently a collaborative effort between the state and capitalists, which is a defining characteristic of its history. Instead she perpetuated the fantasy that capitalism is driven by brilliant and superior individuals who are not hindered by mediocre people. Her understanding of capitalism was flawed, and she never self-critiqued or acknowledged that her perspective was incorrect. She simply believed that everyone else was practicing capitalism incorrectly.

Daniel Denvir

This relates to the core conflict that you have identified in Rand’s work — the tension between her portrayal of victorious conquerors and her portrayal of great individuals who are marginalized and denied their rightful place as rulers. How does this arrogant valorization of the ruling class function alongside this deep sense of resentment, this grievance over naturally great people wrongly being denied their place as rulers?

Lisa Duggan

You know, what is particularly interesting about her and what makes her, in my opinion, the breakout icon that she became, is that she doesn’t just stop at promoting the complacent view of the superiority of European civilization, white supremacy, and capitalism. While she does do that, her personal experiences as a Jewish person in Russia and as a woman meant that she herself faced exclusion and was unable to achieve many of the things she believed she deserved. She was bitterly angry about her own situation, despite having antisemitic views herself and holding a view that femininity ultimately required submission. People patronized and dismissed her due to her Jewish heritage, Russian immigrant background, and gender. She resented not being accepted into the privileged, complacent elite of capitalists and intellectuals she aspired to be a part of.

So her fiction and her thinking are a combination of advocating the deep hierarchies of Western civilization and expressing her anger about feeling like an outsider. Her plots and characters are influenced by these experiences, providing points of identification for those who also feel marginalized. It is worth noting that she has a significant following beyond just the right-wing. She has a large queer fan base, including those who write fan fiction. An article in a recent issue of Gay & Lesbian Review explored the homoerotic themes in The Fountainhead — without delving into the broader context of the book, which is quite common.

Her representation of marriage in her works emphasizes it as something that holds individuals back, despite her own marriage, which was for citizenship purposes, not producing any children. She portrays the limitations imposed by family, state, and church, and the desire to break free from them. Many teenagers identify with this notion, feeling that the family, church, and state inhibit their true selves, and her work is about how a creative individual can rebel against these constraints. As a result, she has garnered a sizable following, even among progressives who may overlook the broader context of her book.

Her fiction and her thinking are a combination of advocating the deep hierarchies of Western civilization and expressing her anger about feeling like an outsider.

For example, a well-respected Belgian social democratic gay playwright named Ivo van Hove recently staged a production of The Fountainhead at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was very well-reviewed. It was full of the cultural elite of Manhattan. And it was uncritical. It was very well done, you know, a faithful dramatization of The Fountainhead. He was interviewed about it, and he said someone gave him a copy of The Fountainhead, and he loved it. He loved it so much that he knew he had to stage it. And it was because of this struggle of the creative individual.

To create what you envision against all the interference of people who want to take you down — he resonated with that. The fact that everybody’s sitting there in this theater and on the stage, I mean, what happens in the end is Howard Roark blows up a public housing project because it isn’t built according to his specifications, and everyone is supposed to cheer.

And these are progressives! These are New York anti-Trump liberals, and the author of this document is a European social democrat. They are ignoring the context. I actually went around and talked to people outside the production. I went multiple times, and what I observed is that they simply overlook the context because it is so deeply familiar to them. It is culturally ingrained. They don’t even recognize the brutality, cruelty, inequality, and racism that are present in the story. Instead, they focus on the romantic plot and individual creative achievements, and they’re not even registering the larger context.

So I think that is, in a sense, the problem of liberalism. Even when it’s advocated by people who are not elite, there’s a dropping away of the political-economic context to focus on one particular kind of struggle without considering the broader context. Ayn Rand facilitates these identifications from outsiders because she was, in a sense, an outsider herself. Her anger about this is not explicitly addressed in her work, but it finds its way into her plots and characters, making it easier for outsiders to resonate with her ideas without fully recognizing the brutality of the larger context. One of the reasons I wrote this book was to make it impossible, or less possible, for anyone to ignore the broader context behind the popularity of her fiction.

Daniel Denvir

This contradiction between the celebration of elitism and outsider grievance reminds me of Trump. The idea that leaders are natural winners, but also that the best people are winners who have been wronged by losers denying their natural right to lead and win.

Lisa Duggan

That’s what it is at its expressive heart. However, there is also room for centrist Democrats who feel excluded because of their gender or sexual orientation. They find a way into that universe and end up accepting the capitalist discourse as the context within which they’re seeking their place. So even outside of the Trumpian version, it is available.

Daniel Denvir

Given the shortcomings of mid-twentieth-century capitalism, which fell short of the capitalism she believed in, did Ayn Rand in some ways anticipate capitalism’s ability to absorb and redeploy the aesthetic critique of the gray, managerial, bureaucratic capitalism of that era?

Lisa Duggan

You know, she was such a black-and-white thinker that she could only understand capitalism as being corrupted by those corporations. So she saw capitalism as failing and being corrupted by its managerialism, its collaborations with the state, but in order to see capitalism as corrupted, she also had to have a fantasy version of the history of capitalism. Because, of course, capitalism has never been independent of the state. The creation of the very context of markets and the set of relations that allow capitalism to function has always been embedded in the state.

She saw capitalism as failing and being corrupted by its managerialism, its collaborations with the state.

The idea that there’s a laissez-faire version of capitalism without the state is complete malarkey. And most of the actual neoliberals knew that. They had a rhetoric of laissez-faire, but themselves, they knew what they needed to do was restructure markets and states, not eliminate them, even though their public rhetoric was “be free of the state.”

Ayn Rand, on the other hand, was just like “be free of the state.” She had no capacity or knowledge to really understand how markets and economies and states actually operated. She couldn’t do the technocratic work of libertarianism, let alone neoliberalism. And by the way she hated libertarians. She called them right-wing hippies.

Daniel Denvir

The foundational role of the state is absent in Rand’s work, and productive labor as value-producing is nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, reproductive labor is also nowhere to be seen. In Anthem, a female character becomes pregnant. But in her later work, there are no pregnancies, no children — just what you call “intensely eroticized romantic triangles.”

In The Fountainhead, maternity is demonized with this character who is disparaged whose weakness is conveyed by the fact that he loves his mother, which is supposed to be prima facie obvious. Other women are portrayed very negatively too, as nagging parasites or starving primitives, and incompetent. And then, in Atlas Shrugged, when the capitalists go on strike, they retreat to a place called the Gulch, which is, you write, “free of detectable labor exploitation and nearly free of any trace of reproductive labor or family life.”

How does Rand render labor’s creation of value invisible in this microcosmic utopia? And what is the connection between her invisibilization of productive labor and her invisibilization of reproductive labor?

Lisa Duggan

She glorifies the entrepreneur and the capitalist, viewing the idea and its creation as belonging solely to the entrepreneur. As a result, she sees the productive laborers, who construct the buildings and implement the plans devised by the brilliant architect, as no different than oxen. They’re people who perform the labor in a relatively mechanical way that has been set out by the brilliant individual, the superior entrepreneur. So labor is invisibilized as productive and creative. It’s just kind of brute and uncreative, no brain involved.

In her novel We the Living, which is her only novel set in Russia, she has a section where she describes peasant life in Russia. And it is so brutally demeaning, portraying the stupid, brutal peasants and the stupid brutality of peasant life. That’s her view of workers as well. But there’s nowhere in her writing where she’s as explicit about that as she is about the Russian peasantry.

Daniel Denvir

They’re almost racialized as genetic inferiors.

Lisa Duggan

And so reproductive labor is a similarly brute animal. It’s like growing a plant, right? You’re no different than the soil. She doesn’t see reproduction as creative or productive labor, either. She just sees it as like a brute bare life.

Because she saw her escape from Russia as being an escape from the state, the family, and the church, these are aligned to her. She sees them all as the site of a kind of negative solidarity. The family will keep you down, the state will keep you down, the church will keep you down — and the only way to achieve is to escape them. And for Rand, the nanny state is very much like the wife. They do servile labor. They also nag and try to control you.

So the regulated managerial state is also aligned with the wife, and wives are terrible in her fiction. They’re all horrifying, nagging, controlling harridans. And all the sexy women are all mistresses without children, mostly without husbands, or their husbands are serially discarded. Meanwhile the men, if they have families, their families have a totally destructive impact on them.

She was deploying a kind of civilizational imperial model of domination.

The feeling of wanting to escape the family, the church, and the state is an opening for a certain kind of identification — but she’s not producing a liberation politics out of that, which is an understatement. For her it’s really just that women are a drag. Children are a drag. And the only way a woman can not be a drag is if she basically is a professional, Aryan, achieving coproducer. That’s her route to being a person. Other than that, she’s not a person. She’s a representative of the kind of brute world that brings you down. So there’s tremendous misogyny in her representations. Even as she produces this sort of very limited, specific kind of equivalence, I wouldn’t call it equality.

Daniel Denvir

Rand was an atheist and didn’t believe in the family. Do you think she shared something fundamentally in common with the Christian right’s family values in terms of the bedrock support for orders of domination that extend from the private sphere to the entirety of political economy? In other words, did Rand redeploy the basic logic of the family, but shorn of its Christian ornamentation?

Lisa Duggan

Well, I wouldn’t put it that way. I think what she was deploying was a kind of civilizational imperial model of domination, not a familial one. She was pretty hostile to nationalism and religion. She was anti-nationalist, militantly atheist, and anti-family. So, it wouldn’t be accurate to say it’s the logic of the Christian right. And I think there are very few Ayn Rand fans in the Christian right. There are a lot of Ayn Rand fans in the alt-right, in Silicon Valley, and in the hybrid zombie neoliberal faux-nationalist racists in the Trump administration. But not in the real right wing.

Paul Ryan ran into trouble when he gave out Atlas Shrugged to every member of his staff, but then a newspaper reporter clocked him and said that she was an atheist, and was against drug laws, and she also had an abortion. And he came back the next day and said “My Real favorite writer is Thomas Aquinas.”

Daniel Denvir

Safer answer.

Lisa Duggan

Because there’s no way to really defend Ayn Rand in the Christian right context. There is a logic of domination, and it’s built on imperialistic ideas, like the British captain and the Hindu savages. And embedded in that history of civilizational empire is a kind of gender order that she adheres to. But I don’t think it’s quite equivalent to the kind of familial solidarity found on the Christian right, which is not her focus.

Daniel Denvir

You mentioned that Orientalist film and literature had a significant influence on Ayn Rand. One children’s magazine called the Mysterious Valley, a French publication, featured a hero who was a British infantry captain in India engaging in orientalist activities in Russia. While she was at the state institute for cinematography in the ’20s, her favorite movie, which she watched frequently, was called the Indian Tomb.

You write, “The physical descriptions, characterizations, thrill of conquest, eroticization of dominant masculinity, and the figures of the hero and the mob can all be traced to the representation of romanticized imperialism prevalent in her surroundings.” She once told a Native American West Point cadet, “It is always going to transpire that when a superior technological culture meets up with an inferior one, the superior will prevail.”

On the other hand, you also mention that she opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act on libertarian grounds, advocating for the so-called color-blind right to contract instead of using language of biological or civilizational racism.

Lisa Duggan

Yes, she supported it, but her position was similar to that of Barry Goldwater.

Daniel Denvir

You write, “The movies outlined the cultural terms of national consolidation at the turn of the century” — as you write, “an American culture industry built by immigrants at the top, primarily Eastern European Jewish moguls, stridently assimilationist.” These businessmen generally downplayed their past in an embrace of their new country.

According to film scholars, these creative outsiders manufactured an American dream fantasy machine, a machine that idealized the United States by erasing its settler-colonial origins, imperial aspirations, and stark capitalist inequalities. How did Rand come to know the US first through the mediation of this cultural industry? How did this industry shape her politics?

Lisa Duggan

That’s how her understanding, her fantasy of the US was built — entirely on the early Hollywood movies that she went to compulsively when she was in school in St Petersburg. So she would go first to European movies and then Hollywood movies. And she just loved Hollywood. She loved Hollywood movies. She loved the glamor, she loved the sparkle. She transferred her erotic fantasy life and identifications from European imperial children’s fiction to these Hollywood versions of gendered, eroticized, white supremacist capitalism.

Then she came to the US and went right to Hollywood. Her first job was as a script reader for Cecil B. DeMille. So she went right into the Hollywood machine, and her fantasies and the fantasies of those moguls were close. She wanted to be violently assimilationist. She was born Alisa Rosenbaum — she changed her name to Ayn Rand to erase her gender, religious ethnicity, and national origin in order to be able to be aggressively assimilationist. Her fantasy was that she would achieve easy and immediate success and that she would be glamorous and participate in this fantasy. And then she ran up against the ways that the fantasy being retailed in movies clashed not only with the actual material conditions in the United States but also with how the movie business was run, as a capitalist enterprise.

Even though she thought she was pro-capitalist, she didn’t realize that the decisions she objected to were a result of capitalism.

And even though she thought she was pro-capitalist, she didn’t realize that the decisions she objected to were a result of capitalism. She had transferred her idealized vision of Europe from children’s fiction to her perception of the United States, shaped by Hollywood movies. She expected the world she entered to be similar to that image, which was created by immigrants like herself within the capitalist system to appeal to a broad audience in the context of the rising US empire. But this vision of American success ignored the underlying conditions that led to that success, including settler colonialism, labor exploitation, mistreatment of immigrants, and other forms of inequality. These issues were conveniently omitted from the films, as well as any acknowledgment of the labor and inequalities that supported the world they depicted.

Daniel Denvir

Yeah. Just as Rand would never feature a Jewish hero in her book, neither would the Jewish Hollywood moguls have cast Jewish heroes in their films.

Lisa Duggan

Never. They would never have done that. They would’ve understood that as being a bad business decision.

And Rand, by contrast, didn’t see it as a bad business decision, but as basically a bad ideological decision.

Yeah. She absorbed antisemitic tropes so that her losers and moochers often had Jewish characteristics. So they would be small or they would wear glasses — I’m talking about stereotypical Jewish characteristics. Even though she was deeply anti-fascist, she absorbed antisemitism as deeply as she absorbed misogyny, even while she also tried to defend herself as a Jewish woman, which created massive contradictions in her work and her images. But that also produced novels that people identified with.

Daniel Denvir

What do you make of these extremely long novels full of extremely long speeches being Rand’s primary medium for philosophical expression? And that she only really dedicated herself to nonfiction writing and stopped writing fiction in the ’60s and ’70s?

Lisa Duggan

She had the Benzedrine crash, and then started lecturing at the Nathaniel Branden Institute. He was born Nathan Blumenthal changed his name to Nathaniel Branden, and he became her sidekick, and eventually her boyfriend, twenty-five years younger. He encouraged her to turn to nonfiction writing. It had taken thirteen years to write Atlas Shrugged, and she was so burned out on Benzedrine that she never really had it in her to write another novel.

So she turned to nonfiction writing, which was never successful. People don’t read her nonfiction except for her Objectivist cult. The cult describes themselves as a philosophical movement aligned with Rand’s nonfiction work. They’re a very small group of people. Her nonfiction work is not particularly popular. It’s the novels that are massively popular.

Daniel Denvir

Because Rand loved movies and her fans loved her books that were like movies.

Lisa Duggan

Yes. Though they did have — and here’s the part that’s hard to explain — these long, incredibly tedious speeches in them, which are just. . .

Daniel Denvir

Didactic.

Lisa Duggan

Totally. And she’s a preacher. She’s sharing the truth with you through the voice of one of her heroes. So she has her hero go on for sixty pages — subtle, you know. And it’s like just explaining the truth to you, you idiot.

Even though she was deeply anti-fascist, she absorbed antisemitism as deeply as she absorbed misogyny.

When the books came out, they initially received terrible reviews in the newspapers and the literary press, but they had real word-of-mouth growth. People were not only drawn to her melodrama, heroics, and the sexiness of her characters and romance plots, but there was something about this kind of didactic activism that also created believers. The novels worked like Gone with the Wind or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They functioned ideologically and polemically even more than they did as a novel.

They circulated those long speeches, and when you read the novel you not only participated imaginatively in the romance plot, but you were also recruited into a belief system. And that was fairly effective. The thousand-page novels became massively popular. And their sales spiked every now and then. Like right after the crash in 2008, their sales spiked again. At all the Tea Party rallies people had signs that said “Who is John Galt?” — John Galt being the hero from Atlas Shrugged. So decade after decade, new recruits and huge sales for what appeared to be almost unreadable novels. And people memorized lines from them, and they can circulate the sayings and characters from them.

Daniel Denvir

People may find affirmation for pretty horrifying ideas in her work, which contributes to her appeal. Would you say her allure stems from her transgression and deviance?

Lisa Duggan

Oh, definitely. To say the thing that provokes everyone, her iconoclasm, her ability to look you dead in the eye and say the thing that’s going to tick you off. It’s like the thrill that people get from alt-right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos. And he gets a thrill too from saying exactly what he knows is going to provoke everyone. She had that kind of appeal. She was the master of deliberate provocation. She loved to speak to college audiences and just set their hair on fire. You know, just say outrageous things and combine ideas that they didn’t think went together. And she did it all with her cigarette holder and her gold pen with a dollar sign on it. She pronounced it in a way that made her seem like a character, a character in her own fictional world.

Daniel Denvir

Rand, of course, is definitionally an elitist, as we’ve discussed. But the culture that she embraced and pervaded is, in fact, middlebrow and popular. Like the movies, she loves surfaces. And so does Trump. Your book reminded me of an essay in Jacobin on Trump’s book The Art of the Deal. Corey Robin writes, “Trump seems to be sincerely moved by the surface of things. The surfaces are garish and gauche, but you sense some kind of inner stirring in him when he writes about those surfaces, a stirring you otherwise never feel.”

What do you make of this dedicated superficiality? It’s a funny combination of celebrating elitism but embodying middlebrow.

Lisa Duggan

Yeah. I mean, all of her tastes were middlebrow, including her preferences in music and literature. Her favorite television show at the end of her life was Charlie’s Angels, which she loved. She had a genuine affinity for pop culture with a middlebrow appeal. She didn’t appreciate European high culture, despite identifying with a superior, creative elite and being inspired by Bauhaus, especially in her architectural fantasies in The Fountainhead.

All of her tastes were middlebrow, including her preferences in music and literature.

It’s an interesting combination because, on one hand, she’s like Liberace with the gold, marble, capes, and all the obvious indulgence. In Trump’s case, he mixes this celebrity resonance with a hard-edged, unsympathetic, anti-solidaristic political stance. He combines an appeal to popular tastes with advocating for the absolute triumph of the wealthiest. It’s not just a hierarchy of wealth, but also a dismissal of a hierarchy of taste. The cultural elite is despised, while the donors to the party represent the hierarchy of wealth. It’s a combination of popular taste and the promotion of radical wealth inequality.

Daniel Denvir

But then it was the other way around in her own critique of Hollywood, where she thought the hierarchy of wealth was tarnishing the hierarchy of taste.

Lisa Duggan

Well, I mean, she just thought that people weren’t letting her do what she wanted to do. [Laughs] And later she was such a thorn in the director King Vidor’s side on the set of The Fountainhead because she wanted to control all the speeches and so forth. Her idea of what was quality ultimately made the film fail, at which point she became very angry and blamed them when she’s the one who made it so boring. So she thought the business culture ruined Hollywood by not allowing the creative individual (her) to impose her middlebrow taste on the popular movie. So the contradictions there are so legion. It doesn’t ultimately add up and make any sense because the sole logic is the logic of narcissism.

Daniel Denvir

On one hand, capitalist morality is fundamentally about blaming people’s condition on poor personal choices. But when Rand doesn’t get exactly what she wants in Hollywood, she immediately blames the inferiority of actually existing American capitalism for all of her own career troubles.

Lisa Duggan

For not being really capitalist, as she might put it. Everybody fails her and disappoints her because they don’t live up to her superior values. It’s the logic of narcissism, and there’s no other consistency in the way that these contradictory positions hang together. It’s not rational. It’s not like the fantasy of pure neoliberal or capitalist rationality.

To the extent that she’s a sociopath or a malignant narcissist, that’s what capitalism is. She’s reflecting the history of empire, colonialism, and capitalism as being narcissistic and sociopathic. It’s not her individual diagnosis.

Daniel Denvir

Neoliberal luminary Ludwig von Mises wrote to Rand in 1958, “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.” He was praising Atlas Shrugged.

How does Rand’s style of extreme elitism get translated into mass populist politics? Does she believe in an ideal where the rabble can be good by recognizing their inferiority, and thus creating a harmonious social whole? Or is her vision more fatalistically tragic, a world that will always be bad because the masses will never quietly accept rule by their superiors?

Lisa Duggan

That’s the question for our time. How do people get recruited to and come to identify with the desires, fantasies, and aspirations of the social order that is crushing them? And that’s what makes Lauren Berlant’s idea of cruel optimism so brilliant. She’s trying to explain that in a way that isn’t just answering “false consciousness” and then we go home.

The popularity of Ayn Rand raises that same question in a different frame, the way you laid it out. She’s saying quite directly, as Mises judged her to be saying, that the masses of people are inferior and that the only path to social success is to recognize their own inferiority and accept rule by their superiors.

She’s saying quite directly that the masses of people are inferior and that the only path to social success is to recognize their own inferiority and accept rule by their superiors.

The people who are buying her books and being recruited into this would overwhelmingly be among the inferior masses. But they don’t see themselves that way because her version of individualism allows them to exceptionalize themselves from the masses and make an aspirational identification with the sexy entrepreneurial hero. The millionaire or billionaire — they have a chance to be that. And if they were to accept solidarity with the mass losers, they would be sacrificing their chance to rise out by their own efforts.

Daniel Denvir

For Rand, only individualist capitalism can support innovation and progress. In Atlas Shrugged, capitalists going on strike forces society back into a state of nature. Why was technology so central to Rand’s vision? And why, in turn, have technologists become among her most fervent fans?

Lisa Duggan

Again, this is contradictory, as so much is in Ayn Rand’s works. She did worship technology in the sense that individual inventors, as portrayed in Anthem, which is governed by a socialist government clearly inspired by the Bolsheviks, were not allowed to use the word “I,” and everyone had to use “we.” Technology is forbidden because if one person has invented the light bulb, they try to suppress it because it would jeopardize the livelihoods of candlemakers. And, you know, Ayn Rand can be funny. She can be really funny alongside her didactic and boring moments. Anthem is funny, and the guy who invents the light bulb is her hero.

In Atlas Shrugged, a guy invents this magical motor that runs without fuel, and he becomes the hero of the story. Technology and the ability to innovate are central to her ideas. She sees the superiority of the West over indigenous populations as being related to technology. However, due to her individualism, her vision is focused on the individual inventor, and she can’t envision a mass collective technological society.

Galt’s Gulch is hilarious in its anachronisms. Here’s this utopia of entrepreneurial inventors. It’s like an Old West town that has been reinvented. It’s very low tech, but each piece of technology there has an individual inventor. There’s an individual inventor who runs the mill that grinds the corn or whatever. But everybody dresses like it’s a Wild West town. It’s the ideal of the individualist American West married to this kind of idealization of the inventor. They don’t go together very well, but that’s what Galt’s Gulch is.

Daniel Denvir

And everyone in the Wild West town, each inventor, has their own science fair set up in the book to show off their project.

Lisa Duggan

It’s a romance of individual achievement that then can’t imagine capitalist technology.

The reason it appeals to these Silicon Valley guys is because that’s how they see themselves. They see themselves as individual entrepreneurs who have innovated this start-up or this platform. They should be left alone by the government. They should not have to meet labor standards. The people who work for them are just the ants that put the phones together, not the geniuses who invent the phones. Their vision of themselves aligns pretty tightly with Ayn Rand’s view of the individual, not the world they actually live in, which requires a collective class project of investment. Their vision of themselves as the individual producer to whom all values should accrue without interference, that aligns very much with an Ayn Rand fantasy.

Daniel Denvir

So all these techno-libertarians love Rand, but Rand hated libertarians. In the ’70s, she called them right-wing hippies, and said, “If such hippies hope to make me their [Herbert] Marcuse, it will not work.”  Which is really funny, actually. But it did work.

Lisa Duggan

Yes, they did make her their Marcuse.

Daniel Denvir

And she couldn’t stop them. What happened?

Lisa Duggan

Yeah. Well, at the moment when she was developing her distaste for libertarians, it was during the emergence of the Libertarian Party in the ’70s, which had various wings. Among them, there was a countercultural wing. In fact, she encountered many vocal individuals who identified as countercultural in some way. Some were even anarcho-libertarians, in addition to the business-oriented libertarians she had a longer history with. However, she strongly disliked these new libertarians of the 1970s and the libertarian movement as a whole. She reviled them and made fun of them relentlessly. They attempted to claim her, but she despised them. She wrote extensively, ridiculing them.

Due to her individualism, her vision is focused on the individual inventor, and she can’t envision a mass collective technological society.

While some of her writing is quite amusing, time has passed. If Ayn Rand were to return to the world today, I believe she would highly approve of the Koch version of libertarianism, which aligns with her own views, rather than the countercultural, anarcho-capitalist libertarianism of the 1970s that she regarded as too countercultural. However, she lacked the analytical ability to discern the various strands within the movement. Instead, she formed her opinions based on emotional reactions to phenomena and then expressed them without much depth of understanding. Her sources mainly consisted of anecdotal encounters, TIME magazine articles, or television broadcasts.

Daniel Denvir

She didn’t like normal hippies either, even though she was a libertine of sorts. Or is libertine not the right terminology for her?

Lisa Duggan

Libertine, no. But she was nonmonogamous.

Daniel Denvir

Nonethical nonmonogamy. [Laughs]

Lisa Duggan

Well, it was ethical, but it was coercively ethical. She and her lover Nathaniel Branden negotiated with their spouses to allow this affair to occur. They got permission to have sex once a week for a couple of hours while her husband left the apartment. So it was all negotiated.

Daniel Denvir

Her negotiation with her husband was very egalitarian, give and take.

Lisa Duggan

She was very upset because he apparently didn’t really like to have sex with her. And shockingly she didn’t consider him sufficiently dominating in the bedroom. Anyway it was ethical in that superficial way, but it was coerced. The consent was coerced consent. Their spouses didn’t have much of a choice, given that both of them were economically dependent on Nathaniel and Ayn.

And then what makes it also veer into the unethical, aside from the coercive nature of the consent, was that she kept it a secret, a very deep secret. She didn’t want anyone in her circle or her movement to know. So here’s this proponent of truth and honesty, and she has this deep secret that doesn’t get exposed until the ’80s when Nathaniel Branden’s wife wrote a book called The Passion of Ayn Rand after Rand has died to talk about this affair. And when the affair broke up because Nathaniel had yet another secret girlfriend, and Ayn Rand felt that that was a violation of morality, decency, and everything valuable, that he had lied to her about his sex life with a less valuable woman.

Daniel Denvir

That violates her narrative ideal of these weird sex triangles, where the woman has to choose the better man of the two. Instead, Nathaniel chose the inferior woman over Rand, who’s obviously the superior.

Lisa Duggan

One. And that’s —

Daniel Denvir

A problem obviously. That reflects poorly on him. [Laughs]

Lisa Duggan

Exactly. And in fact, because she was his chosen successor and the head cult leader, the fact that he had done this meant he violated her entire philosophical system by choosing a lesser value and lying about it. This meant to her that her whole philosophical system was attacked and demeaned. She never recovered from that. She had a total meltdown.

She threw him out of Objectivism. She denounced him to everyone but never admitted the reasons for it. She claimed it was financial fraud, which was a lie. There was no financial fraud. She made everybody choose sides and had him shunned.

He went to California with the new girlfriend and became a rich Los Angeles therapist writer and the founder of what became known as the self-esteem movement.

Daniel Denvir

Wow. A New Agey huckster.

Lisa Duggan

Yes. That’s what he became. But in summary, she had an unconventional arrangement that was full of contradictions and unethical practices. But, nevertheless, she hated the counterculture. She wrote a book called The Return of the Primitive that’s basically about environmentalists and hippies. She saw them as wanting to take things back to the dominance of savages, to roll back Western civilization to the age of the Asian, African, and other “native” hordes.

That’s what environmentalists wanted, in her view — to turn us back to the primitiveness and savagery of the hordes of color in the Third World. And if they succeeded, that’s what would happen. Western civilization would be destroyed, and all the values that she held dear would be destroyed. She was a particular attacker of environmentalism and environmental politics.

Daniel Denvir

Because she saw that as a fundamental threat to capitalism and technology.

Lisa Duggan

Yes, to capitalism, but also to Western civilization.

Daniel Denvir

Which both require the domination of nature. I was speaking with Silvia Federici the other day about how the people who are to be dominated are associated with nature.

Lisa Duggan

Yes. And they should both be exploitable. The earth and the inferior others are exploitable resources. And if we say we can’t exploit the earth, then that means we can’t exploit the natural resources of this labor pool. Then the entire structure will come down. And she wasn’t wrong about that. She was just wrong about hating it. [Laughs]

For Rand, the earth and the inferior others are exploitable resources.

Daniel Denvir

To close out, as you mentioned earlier, while Trump is a perfect distillation of Rand’s mood as a person, he is, write quote, “in most ways, a Rand villain.” A businessman who relies on cronyism and manipulation of government, who advocates interference in so-called “free markets,” who bullies big companies to do his bidding — in short, her character sketches of sellouts and dirtbags. What does it reveal about Rand’s enormous influence that the ultimate product of her politics uncannily represents precisely what she so ardently claimed to hate?

Lisa Duggan

It’s really all about the affect. It’s about the feeling. It’s not about the ideas. Her ideas are cartoonish, and while some people become fans of her ideas, it’s the feeling attached to the ideas that sucks people in. It’s the contempt, dismissal, and indifference that has the influence. And that’s what Trump has. He’s not an Aryan idea, he doesn’t actually look like Howard Roark, but he thinks he does, or he wants to. He wants the hair, you know.

Daniel Denvir

He was the best baseball player in New York at some point, he said.

Lisa Duggan

The contempt, the indifference, the assumption of superiority. Those are all very Randian. But his actual practices make him a villain, even in her worldview. And she would be merciless about him if she were alive. I mean, it would be entertaining to see her be merciless. She would criticize everything from the way he looks in his tennis outfit to every crummy self-dealing government thing that he does. He would be a cartoon villain for her.

But Trump imagines himself to be an Ayn Rand hero. And that’s the power of her vision, that there is such a wide swath of people with overlapping and sometimes conflicting political and policy views who can imagine themselves in her scenarios. And the end result of that is primarily this affective, cruel, greedy meanness that is the takeaway from bonding with an Ayn Rand novel.

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